2021-01-31 Epiphany 4
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last Sunday we had a couple of students from Briercrest here at the 11AM service. They were doing some course work, attending a church service that had the Lord’s Supper. They were observing how it all took place and what we taught about it. I remember those days all too clearly myself. I had a similar experience too back in university. We had to attend a religious service that we had never attended before and observe what went on there. I went to a Jewish Synagogue, specifically Beth Shalom Synagogue on Jasper Ave in Edmonton. It was an experience to say the least. As I walked up the stairs that Saturday morning I was greeted in Hebrew. “Shabbat Shalom!” a greeter said. “Good morning!” I replied back. Immediately they knew! But it was fascinating. The sanctuary had pews like any Christian church has, but they all faced East. There was a cantor leading the people in prayer, all of which was in Hebrew. There was a big table up front where they read the Hebrew scriptures from and a little wardrobe type cupboard where they kept the scripture scroll. The Torah cupboard it was called. They took the scroll out and processed around the synagogue and people came up to touch it with their prayer shawls and prayer books because they recognized that it was a very precious thing to them. These sacred scrolls were the very words of God that defined who they were and held authority in their lives.
Mark’s Gospel reading for today begins in this same kind of setting. The ancient synagogue that he mentions wasn’t all that different from the one that I visited. It was still the same kind of place of teaching and learning and studying the scriptures. It was still the place where God’s people gathered together to hear God’s word spoken to them. In Jesus’ day, there were really two places of worship. The first one was the Temple - the place where all the gory sacrifices happened. This was up until 70AD when the Romans smashed it to the ground. The other place of worship was the synagogue. This is where they would go to pray and hear the Rabbi teach about the scriptures. Our Lutheran liturgy reflects this history as we have both synagogue and temple combined in our Sunday Divine Services. So, as our Lord begins His earthly ministry of bringing light to the nations, He begins in none other than a synagogue. And what is He doing there? Selling bagels and schmear?! Hardly. He was in the synagogue teaching.
Teaching. It’s what the Rabbis did. They taught God’s laws and words to the people. Often times there was some waffling on various teachings. One Rabbi taught this idea, another taught that perspective. Seldom was there 100% agreement on everything. In fact the old saying proved true. “Two Jews, Three Opinions!” And this marked the difference with Jesus. When He got up to teach, He “taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (MK 1:22). It was mind blowing to hear someone teaching with authority. Definitive answers. Helpful discussion. Enlightening conversation! Such a difference from the usual shlock they put up with.
And much of life is like this, is it not? We hardly find anything carved in stone these days. Most things are in flux. You go to the Doctor’s office and he puts you on a whole host of horse pills. Then the next Doctor says “why are you on all that stuff?” and promptly switches your prescription. Then you read some health article about all natural organic medicines and you chuck all the pills in the garbage. One child psychologist says to raise your kids with time outs and positive reinforcements. The next one says give them discipline and a good whoopin’ every now and again. One financial planner says mutuals. The next one says high-risk futures! One political party pulls the country to the left, the next one pulls it further to the left! Lock downs work, no they don’t. This mask, no, that mask. Butter! Margarine! You get the idea. All of life is like the wind blowing the prairie grass this way and that way, everything always changing, always in flux. Nothing seems solid and dependable. Nothing seems trustworthy.
This is what makes Jesus so different. He really stands out. The people in the synagogue are blown away because He teaches with authority. He tells it like it is. He doesn’t waffle this way and that way. He’s no Mr. Dithers. His word and teaching commands respect. People listened. You never had to wonder if what He said was true or not. And the core nugget of His teachings: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel!” (MK 1:15). When the scribes and the Pharisees and the Rabbis taught, they were always citing what previous teachers taught. “Rabbi so-and-so said this, therefore I say this”. Not so with Jesus. When He speaks, He speaks with His own authority because He is the authority!
Our society and culture used to listen to our Lord’s authority. But not so much anymore. Now it is an attitude of “Who are you to tell me how to live my life?!” Or, the more insidious post-modern way of thinking: “That may be true for you, but not for me”. Truth becomes subjective. Truth becomes in flux. It’s basically how everyone thinks in the world today. “Jesus may be the answer for you, but not for me!” There can’t be just one road and one answer for them, so they think. But I always challenge people of this mindset to quit paying their income taxes. That’s right. Quit rendering unto Caesar. “It may be true to pay taxes for you, but not for me!” Go ahead! Try that. See how far you get with Mr. Taxman.
But this wishy-washy nebula way of thinking has been around for a long time. Just think back to when our Lord Jesus was there before Pontius Pilate. Do you remember that exchange? “Then Pilate said to him,”So you are a king?" Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”(JN 18:37-38). What is truth? Pontius Pilate asked Jesus this very question some 2000 years ago!! It’s not a new thing to doubt the truth of God’s word. It’s a very old problem, one that goes back thousands of years, way back to a certain garden where a serpent popped the question to an unsuspecting girl “Did God really say…”
But for us, dear friends, Jesus is the truth. He is the answer, with authority. He is the only way to the Father. His word is eternal life. He is Who our trust needs to be fixed on. He is our rock. He is our anchor. He is our mountain. Earthly ideas and cares, they come and go. Doctors. Natural paths. Psychologists. Financial planners. Politicians. Canada Revenue Agency. Butter. Margarine… In 100 years from now, what will it matter for us? Not one iota! Jesus, on the other hand, matters. Forever! He is our solid rock which cannot move. He is Who we build our identity and faith on. His word is what fills us with light in this dark world. His teaching is what gives us certainty in the midst of change. Faith in our crucified and risen Lord is gives us stability in the face of chaos. His Word is truth because it doesn’t change. Truth doesn’t change. It is the same yesterday, today and forever more. In a world of continuous flux, Jesus’ word is the mighty fortress that defends and protects us from a cesspool of waffling, doubt and falsehood. Cling to our Lord. Cling to His teachings of grace and forgiveness for your sins. Cling to the light of His cross that has swallowed up the darkness of death. Be ever filled with the light of His kingdom that even the unclean spirits obey. To Christ be the glory now and forever more! Amen!